Uganda: Tribal Art Treasures in the Heart of the City

allAfrica.com | The Independent (Kampala) | Dominic Muwanguzi:


This is a very expensive business because buyers know what they are spending their money on

African Congolese tribal mask. Large round carved wood mask, representative of the Lubo, a Bantu speaking people from southern Congo

Every community in Africa has art that reflects its traditional customs and beliefs. It is art that speaks to how a particular ethnic community, lived before encountering western culture. In Africa, western scholars call this tribal art or African ethnic art. It’s rich in metaphor and symbolism and often reflects the deep cultural diversity of each ethnic group.

The Congo located in Central Africa is arguably the wealthiest in this cultural diversity and this can be observed by the masks, wood carvings, terracotta objects (made of out clay), shields, and spears each tribe crafted.

“One tribe could have as many as ten masks or more each representing a particular event or ceremony. For example the Songye of central Africa (the Congo now Democratic Republic of Congo) had female and Male Masks; Circumcision Masks; harvesting Masks; Child Birth Masks, not to mention the many types of wood carvings that were used to placate the spirits during certain occasions” says Joe Nixon Ndyanabangi who has been dealing in and collecting tribal art for more than ten years now.

At Joe’s Antique shop, one discovers and appreciates the creative ingenuity of our ancestors. I was intrigued by one particular mask in a box with several others. It was quite huge; weighing about 2kg and has a fine intricate design with embroidery of beads on the upper section of its head. Its face is decorated with fine ornamental materials like metal and rubber and pristine-like beads which enhance its refined appearance.

I suspect that it could have belonged to a chief or some supreme leader.

“That one is called a Boom Mask and it used to be worn by some elders or the elite among the Songye tribe in the Congo,” Joe tells me.

Most of the masks on display have sisal fabrics adorning them at their tails and my host.

“Some of the ceremonies or rituals like circumcision where not meant to be seen by children and women. These fabrics would be used to scare away the unwanted guests to these fetes,” Joe explains.

He fishes out a shield from the Bakinga of Western Uganda. It weighs about 2.5kgs and measures approximately 60cm x 34cms. Its face was designed with synthetic fibres like raw tendrils. It was then “coated” with clay or cow dung to preserve it from decay.

It should be noted that the people of Eastern Africa never practiced much of wood carving or crafting of masks except for the Makonde tribe of south eastern Tanzania.

The reason for this is that there’s little thick vegetation in East Africa to collect from high quality timber which is used to craft masks and wood curving objects. This is not the case for the Congo

Much of the artifacts from Eastern Africa are in form of fabrics and Jewelry. For example the Baganda practiced weaving and many tribes of western Uganda indulged in jewelry making which also had specific symbolic spiritual ornamental meaning.

Joe also shows me another shield – this from one of the indigenous tribes of Ethiopia. It is made out of rhino skin and it is tough and almost as thick as hardwood timbre. With such a collection, I ask him how he can identify a fake artifact and an original one.

“Every artifact has what is called “pattina”; a sooty substance that forms on an object after being used or preserved for a long period of time. Fake artifacts do not have this quality and they’re made from cheap hardwood,” observes Joe.

With the quality of mask and wood curving aside, Joe points out that the market for tribal art is a very refined market with buyers, or collectors being informed about what they buy. Most can spend huge amounts of money on a single artifact.

“This is a very expensive business because buyers know what they are spending their money on,” Joe says. He says a single artifact can cost up to US$3000 locally and up to US$20,000 on the international market. The main selling point is the age.

Tribal art remains the most prized type of art on the global art market. Ironically though, many people in Africa; where most of the tribal masks come from, still remain ignorant about its value with many masks and wood curving still being poorly kept in many households across the continent.

Joe Nixon Ndyanabangi runs Gallery Antique Uganda, located at Nakumatt Oasis Mall and Equator Line Kayabwe.

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Image source: http://lapidarius.com/catalogue/ethnic-art